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Saturday, September 29, 2012

Is Jordan heading for chaos? The royal court's unwillingness to make real constitutional reforms increases the risk of further unrest and its own removal

Is Jordan heading for chaos?
The royal court's unwillingness to make real constitutional reforms increases the risk of further unrest and its own removal
Samer Libdeh, Saturday 29 September 2012 10.00 BST

As the impact of the Arab spring continues to be felt across many parts of the Middle East, the Jordanian regime's unwillingness to heed calls for meaningful political reform, greater press freedoms and democratisation is antagonising political and civil society activists alike.

While protests and demonstrations in Jordan have been small and relatively peaceful compared with those in other countries in the region, the royal court's continued intransigence could lead to further unrest, including violent clashes with security forces.

In what was widely seen as an effort to stamp out criticism of the royal court, the Jordanian parliament which consists mainly of conservative pro-regime members recently passed a controversial press and publications law that requires online media organisations to register and obtain licences from the authorities.

In addition, online publishers will be held accountable for comments posted by readers on their website and they will be prohibited from publishing comments that are not strictly relevant to the published article (how this is to be determined is far from clear). This law is clearly designed to limit the dissemination of political commentary that may be critical of the regime.

Although the royal court has in recent months proposed changes to the constitution and the electoral law, these have largely been dismissed as a cosmetic exercise since the king will retain the power to dismiss parliament at will and the proposed new electoral system is still rigged in favour of regime supporters.

In addition, the majority of Jordanians (ie Palestinian-Jordanians) will be significantly under-represented in the parliament. The leading opposition group in Jordan, the Islamic Action Front (IAF the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood) has vowed to boycott legislative elections planned for early next year and has called for a mass rally to take place in early October.

The IAF is demanding meaningful constitutional amendments to reduce the powers of the king and to amend the current electoral system, which mainly benefits regime supporters. Additionally, influential Transjordanian tribes have been calling for anti-corruption measures as well as amendments to the constitution to give further powers to the parliament.

While there have not been calls for the abolition of the monarchy, the royal court's refusal to properly engage with the protesters is likely to increase tension in the kingdom and could ultimately lead to calls for the removal of the king.

The royal court has a difficult balancing act to perform. First, the protesters are divided. Transjordanians, who have been traditionally loyal to the Hashemite regime, are opposed to political reform that challenges their inherited privileged status and position, and are resisting calls to increase the representation of Palestinian-Jordanians in parliament.

While the king will have to respond to the demands of the IAF and the Palestinian-Jordanians, he will also have to remain sensitive to the needs of the Transjordanians. This will not be an easy task.

Second, if the royal court agrees to real constitutional and political reform there is a risk that the IAF will obtain control of parliament and as a result it would be able to challenge the authority and power of the king for example by introducing further amendments to the constitution.

Third, the Jordanian economy and the royal court's patronage network is largely funded by financial aid from Saudi Arabia, which strongly opposes further democratisation in the Middle East. The royal court is, therefore, coming under pressure from one of its main financial backers to resist calls for political change.

Given the strategic geopolitical importance of the Hashemite kingdom, it is not in the interests of western or regional governments to see Jordan descend into chaos or experience further unrest. So what should be done? A low turnout in the parliamentary elections scheduled to take place later this year under the royal court's new electoral law will be a disaster for the regime and it will raise questions over the legitimacy of the king's reform agenda. Thus the royal court needs to positively engage with protesters and postpone the elections until agreement is reached with stakeholders on political and constitutional reform.

Jordan has the potential to transition to democracy in a more peaceful and organised way by following the Moroccan example. In 2011, the Moroccan monarchy agreed to transfer more powers to parliament, including the authority to form cabinets. This ensured the survival of the monarchy and averted further unrest and violence there.

Unfortunately, it does not appear as if Jordan's king has the vision or the courage to follow this path but failure to learn the lessons of the Arab spring may mean that the Jordanian people will make that decision for him.

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